Cobble, Cobble, Cobble, Flanders!

Hands up who knows what they’ll be watching on Easter Sunday afternoon (probably on Sky+ HD after an unfeasibly large roast dinner)? TOUR OF FLANDERS!

Nicole Cooke leads over the Muur

My favourite Flanders fact/legend: The Paterberg was cobbled by the local farmer to ensure that the race went past his house. Now that’s how to get involved in supporting your local race.

He might have also spotted the canny business opportunity to erect marquees in the adjoining fields and flog them to those most willing to pay for a roadside spot with refreshments. With a little less cynicism in my heart I note that this man rode up it 175 times in a day.

Diabetes No Limits 175 x de Paterberg t.v.v. Febe Foundation (Febe diabetes vzw) from Jannick Verhaeghe on Vimeo.


I rode the cyclo-tourist/sportive version in 2007 and wrote a piece for the BBC website – “Twenty Thousand Belgians Can’t Be Wrong” which I’ve reproduced below:

“It’s Saturday morning, it’s sunny and I’m somewhere in the middle of several thousand cycling fans of all shapes, sizes and abilities, riding every manner of bike imaginable. Where else in the world could I be but in Belgium on Tour of Flanders weekend, taking part in the annual amateur ride around the legendary course?

I’d settled for the 140km distance, handily avoiding the 120km preamble from Bruges to the bit of the race that everyone talks about: the 18 climbs where the race is decided, starting with the Molenberg and ending with the Bosberg. Somewhere in between there’s the brutish Paterberg and the iconic Muur-Kapelmuur where this race is so often won.

It’s a sportif but nothing quite like I’ve experienced elsewhere – some of it is ridden on cycle paths, the rest on open roads and it’s not just the stereotypical cycling hardcore taking part. From people on town bikes in jeans to expensive racers in full race kit, every flavour of cyclist is represented and enjoying themselves as we roll out of Ninove in a never-ending snake of cyclists.

My London Dynamo club kit might have marked me out as “not a local” among the Belgians and within about twenty minutes I’m enjoying a conversation with a Belgian guy about how many are taking part today – he reckons anything up to 25,000 due to the clement weather rather than the traditional rain – and who will win on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, no Belgian I speak to during the day believes anyone other than Tom Boonen will win.

It’s an oft-cited reason for what marks amateur cycling out from other sports but there really is no other sport where the fans have the same level of access to the courses and equipment and can experience, as far as is possible, what the elite go through. So when I swing right, past the sign and onto the cobbles of the Molenberg in the middle of a group of 100 or so riders, I know roughly what it must feel like for the pros as they get down to the serious bit of the race.

There’s no hiding that it can be tough at times – there’d be no challenge if it weren’t – but with the exception of the Paterberg, where I thought that it was entirely possible that gravity would get the better of me, none of the climbs is insurmountable with some training, the right gears and a little determination not to put your foot down. In fact, the only time I had to put a foot down all day was on the Muur which was rendered impassable by fallen riders. Even then I eventually remounted and with a friendly push was still able to ride to the top.

The sensation of getting to the top of some of those climbs is rather ecstatic: you look back over your shoulder and think “crikey, I’ve just got up that without stopping!” as you peer down the unfeasibly steep section of road you’ve just burst a lung to get up. And the sensation as you cross top of the Bosberg and head to the actual finish line in Ninove to dream that you’ve won the race is more than a little satisfying (OK, I did try to do the arms aloft thing before realising I was about to run into a policeman).

Not only do I have a certificate and a water bottle to prove I finished but also I can now watch the race and know exactly how tough the course is with a new found respect for just how much quicker the elite riders are. But mostly I’m filled with a nice warm sense of achievement at having ridden it in a respectable time of under six hours.”

And now for the professionals

No doubt the television coverage won’t extend to the women’s race but there’s a cracking field and the elite women’s races tend to be a more open and far less predictable result than the men.

That said, my bet is that it will come down to a winner from a small group of riders several of whom are always in contention, whatever the race.

Marianne Vos, Emma Johansson and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg have all got early-season wins under their belt and seem to be in good form.

Teutenberg, last year’s winner, has probably got the strongest team in HTC-Columbia. With Judith Arndt and Noemi Cantele both riding, they’re should have strength in numbers when it comes to attack and counter in the key phases of the race.

Cervelo Test Team are nominally the powerhouse of women’s cycling and I’d pick Mirjam Melchers, Regina Bruins and Kirsten Wild as their ones to watch. Bit surprised to see Emma Pooley on the start list. She weighs so little I would have thought she’ll bounce all over the cobbles.

Nicole Cooke is going to be extremely motivated this year after a comparatively bleak year as World and Olympic Champion. She’s riding in the GB colours with a relatively green team around her, but the strength of her support has rarely had a huge impact on her ability to win.

The elite men

The form book says it will come down to a handful of the usual suspects. The main players are going to be:

Tom Boonen

Fabian Cancellara

Juan Antonio Flecha (Juan Antonio’s not he’s real name, he’s actually Norman Stanley but he adopted the spanish sounding name to seem more continental)

Filippo Pozzato

Thor Hushovd

My outside tip is Martijn Maaskant whose own site describes him as “Rocky on a bike” *confused face*. Fourth last year, twelfth in his first year, he’s floating below the radar a bit and is has been consistently in contention without being hyped.

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